It’s January, the month of new year’s resolutions and other doomed efforts at self-improvement. And what better way to make more of one’s life than rising earlier to seize the day?
At least that’s what the voice in my head says as I hit the snooze alarm for the 10th time at 9.30am. Then it’s time to get up, racked with guilt at my laziness, as if sleeping in were some kind of ethical lapse.
It’s not, of course. People’s sleep/wake cycles are inherently varied, and if you, too, are a late to bed, late to rise person, you’re simply a night owl – or, in clinical terms, you have a delayed sleep phase.
It’s time for this circadian-rhythm-shaming to end. It’s nothing new – centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin made the shockingly biased claim that “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”. In a 2018 essay in the Cut, Edith Zimmerman wrote that “waking up early gives you a surge of power; you feel superior, smug”. More recently, a Reddit user put it simply: “Night owls suck,” the person wrote. “Your sleep habits are an [obstacle] in the path of every plan that constantly needs to be worked around.”
But night owls, take comfort: as Robin Williams once said to Matt Damon, it’s not your fault. Your daily sleep-wake schedule, called your chronotype, appears to be mostly genetic. Assessments of how common it is to be a night owl vary: experts who spoke to the Guardian had heard estimates around 15%, while a recent study in Finland found 10% of men and 12% of women to be “evening types”. A 2007 study found that the most common chronotype, accounting for 14.6% of people, slept from 12.09am to 8.18am in the absence of “social obligations” – but half the population slept later. In any case, night owls: you are not alone.
Our chronotype is “part and parcel of who we are”, says Dr Beth Ann Malow, a neurologist and sleep expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “It’s not something like: ‘I’m gonna choose to be a night owl, and I’m lazy.’ It’s a biological preference.”
Dr Phil Gehrman, a clinical psychologist who specializes in behavioral sleep medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees. Bias against night owls is “purely cultural”, he says, citing Franklin, who helped found his university. (Ben Franklin was also a proponent of something akin to daylight savings time, which is a whole other circadian mess.)
The 9-5 schedule might be good for earlier risers, but it works against those who need to sleep later. And that might not just be the owls: a 2014 study found that, in general, the later work and class started, the more sleep participants (who were not all owls) got. “It’s the combination of early work start and long commute that is driving short sleep,” the study’s lead author, Dr Mathias Basner, director of Penn’s unit for experimental psychiatry, division of sleep and chronobiology, wrote in an email to the Guardian.
The problem comes when we have jobs or classes that don’t align with our circadian rhythms. When the obligations of waking life clash with one’s sleep schedule so badly that it’s difficult to function, night owldom shifts from a tendency to a condition known as delayed sleep-wake phase disorder, in which one’s circadian rhythms make daily functioning difficult. About 0.2% to 1.7% of adults have this condition.
“What’s crazy,” Malow says, is that whether a person’s sleep habits are viewed as a disorder or simply a tendency “is going to depend more on their lifestyle and their employment than it is anything else.”
Malow says treatment often starts with seeing if people can adjust their work schedules to suit their biological rhythms. She describes a patient who struggled in high school but blossomed when he began working as a chef; or students who are able to sign up for late classes.
In an ideal world, she says, we’d be less rigid about work start times – in health terms, the best case scenario would be finding ways to adhere to our own body clocks. Instead of trying to match social demands, “I would much rather [patients] stay on a consistent schedule where they’re going to bed at two and waking up at 10 or 11.” Of course, many people aren’t lucky enough to have such shifts as an option – in which case the disorder can be treated with light exposure, melatonin and exercise. Such techniques make it possible to change circadian rhythms, Gehrman says, but people have varying success rates (he has coined a term for this: circadian flexibility).
But outside of concerns over work schedules, are there fundamental health benefits to waking up early? Research has, for instance, suggested a link between late rising and poor mental health or unhappiness. But according to Gehrman, the jury is very much still out on this.
“There are a lot of epidemiologic studies showing that being a night owl is associated with higher rates of depression and anxiety and all these things. But the the open question is: is it the fact that you’re a night owl? Or is it the fact that most night owls are forced to follow a schedule that’s earlier than their circadian rhythm – what we often refer to as a mismatch,” he says. Recent studies have pointed to the latter, he says: “It’s certainly not conclusive, but that’s what we think is going on.”
The upshot is: if you’re a night owl, don’t feel bad about it, and if you’re an early bird, go easy on your night-owl friends. In fact, by painting late sleepers as lazy, you might just be supporting The Man: the British researcher Dr Paul Kelley has speculated that we stick to a 9-5 schedule because it suits 50-something bosses, whose age means it’s easier to get up earlier.
“People shouldn’t change their schedule because of the belief that following their schedule is bad for them,” Gehrman says. “As humans, we always seem to say if someone’s different from us, they’re therefore wrong.
“I think people should look at circadian rhythm differences the same way they look at any other differences between people.” So don’t come at us with your judgments – especially not before noon.